Is there a whiff of the stench of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell about something happening in Ireland just now?
The New Advent encyclopedia tells us that one of the first practical results of the assumption of the highest spiritual powers by king Henry VIII was the appointment of Thomas Cromwell as the king’s vicar-general in spirituals, with special authority to visit the monastic houses, and to bring them into line with the new order of things.
This was in 1534. A document, dated 21 January, 1535, allowed Cromwell to conduct the visitations through “commissaries”. Parliament met early in the following year, 1536, with the twofold object of replenishing an exhausted exchequer and of anticipating opposition on the part of the religious to the proposed ecclesiastical changes. According to the royal design, the Commons were to be asked to grant Henry the possessions of at least the smaller monasteries.
But Cromwell, who is credited with the first conception of the design, knew that to succeed, a project such as this must be sustained by strong yet simple reasons calculated to appeal to the popular mind. Some decent pretext had to be found for presenting the proposed measure of suppression and confiscation to the nation, and it can hardly now be doubted that the device of blackening the characters of the monks and nuns was deliberately resorted to.
This they did and followed on with one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism and religious sacrilege the modern world has ever seen.
Does all that sound a little familiar? Does it in some way send a shiver down your spine when you read news stories in the Irish newspapers about attempts by the State to confiscate the assets of Irish religious orders?
Irish society took advantage of the charitable dispositions of several religious orders of nuns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The State acquiesced in this, right up to the end of the 20th century, without giving any practical help, without any oversight or regard for the need for adequate training for the work entrusted to these charitable organisations.
Now, in the 21st century the same State is proceeding to portray these institutions to the public mind as sadistic and sinister abusers of women which the state had “innocently” left in their care. This campaign of vilification is being carried out at the instigation and prodding of elements of the Irish media, the driving force behind the new Irish “Reformation”. The State is now going after the property and assets of these religious institutions, most of which is still in daily use for their work of education, health-care and attending to the indigent in society.
The same media is now reporting that four religious congregations which have refused to contribute to the compensation fund for residents of their former Magdalene laundries had combined gross assets worth €1.5 billion when the last comprehensive assessment of their financial resources was made in 2009.
Friday’s Irish Times reports on the impasse between the State and these institutions. Most of the assets, it tells us, comprise property and buildings in use as schools, hospitals, facilities for health and disability services, making it impossible for the value of the assets to be realised. “Some of the assets are held in trust, making transfer problematic. With the property market depressed, 2009 values no longer stand, and attempts to dispose of land have not been successful.
“Yesterday Taoiseach Enda Kenny accepted in the Dáil that the orders could not be compelled to pay, and that moral persuasion would have to be applied. There have been calls for the four orders be stripped of their charitable status.”
Well, this is 2013, and the rule of law is a little more nuanced than it was in the fifteen thirties. But is the agenda not really the same? No one for a moment denies that girls and women suffered in these institutions. No one for a moment denies that the institutions were operated and run in a cultural and religious environment which now repels us. But the responsibility for what happened, the responsibility for the continuation for a century and a half was not the sole responsibility of a few organizations. It was the responsibility of the whole society.
What the Irish State and the “intelligentia” in the Irish media which is now effectively the puppet-master of the Irish State , is trying to do is an exercise in scapegoating of the most unjust kind. Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell used the pretext of some undoubted bad eggs in English monasticism to destroy much of the religious fabric – and a great deal of the social fabric – of late medieval England. The French Revolutionary forces used the pretext of the undoubted excesses of the French clerical and ecclesiastical class to destroy the Catholic Church in France in the late 18th century. In both cases – and in this one also, it seems, undoubted injustice was used as a pretext to perpetrate much greater injustices.
The Irish Times, in its moderate and balanced report on Friday, outlined the situation of the two biggest orders involved in this controversy as follows:
Sisters of Mercy
The country’s largest order, with 2,000 members, founded by Sr Catherine McAuley in 1834, has played a central role in educational provision. In 2009 it had total property assets of over €1 billion. Some €660 million related to schools in use, €60 million to a hospital in use; the value of congregation residences was €200 million and a further €70 million related to other services.
It had €182 million in financial (non-property) assets but it argued that providing for the care of its members as well as funding its core services would account for all of that.
The order ran two of the Magdalene laundries, in Galway and Dun Laoghaire. The Government requested the order to sell all the properties (valued at €11.6 million) it offered to the statutory fund for institutional survivors. As of the last report six weeks ago, it had paid more than €1.6 million.
Sisters of Charity
Founded in Dublin by Mary Aikenhead in 1815, the Sisters of Charity are associated with education and healthcare, and founded St Vincent’s Hospital. With about 250 members in its Irish province, it had some €266 million in assets in 2009, virtually all of which was restricted or committed to provision of services or welfare of its elderly members.
A €5 million offer was made to the statutory fund in 2009 but only €2 million was paid. The order said it could not afford to hand over the remaining €3 million because of the downturn in the property market. It ran two Magdalene laundries, one in Donnybrook in Dublin and the other in Peacock Lane in Cork.
The institutions are quietly fighting this injustice but the public opprobrium being heaped on them for defending their rights and the work which they have been doing and want to continue doing is relentless. For many, all this is part of a bigger agenda of Ireland’s liberal left to destroy for once and for all the work and influence of the Catholic Church in the Ireland. They may just be right.